Permanent war is a disaster for us all

No one knows what triggered a US army staff sergeant's calm progress on 11 March through two tiny villages in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province, murdering, we are told, as he went. Clearly something switched off his moral reflexes. In due course, as the case makes its slow progress through the US court martial system, we will discover more. What we do know is that he is a family man and that in addition to his time in Afghanistan he had served three tours in Iraq.

The US and the UK - or rather, our armed forces - have been at war now for more than ten years. Because of the way British forces are organised, the campaigns have been fought as a series of six-month "tours" of duty for those involved. Twice a year, the entire force comes home and is replaced by another.

The moment you arrive at your post in Afghanistan (or "in theatre") you know that you have 186 days to go. For those in an infantry role, patrolling the ground, these days are very often savage and stress-filled. I have been told that before some patrols in areas particularly infested with improvised explosive devices, soldiers will throw up with fear.

Many of our soldiers - those in 16 Air Assault Brigade, for example - have done as many as three tours in Helmand. Some, especially in "higher-end" roles such as special forces, have done many more, in addition to the tours they may have spent in the Iraq campaign. All this is against a background of a dubious strategy and shifting aims.

Yet many US soldiers consider the British routine to be somewhat soft. The US army sergeant accused of the Panjwai murders was part of a brigade serving a one-year tour. Until recently the usual duration of US deployments was 12 or even 15 months. This long tour is a legacy of Vietnam. The difference was that, in Vietnam, unless a soldier actively wanted to go back to serve in combat, he served only one tour. Even so, anyone with the slightest knowledge of what happened in south-east Asia will know what a single year's combat can do to a man.

Revolving door

Within the US armed forces it is now common for soldiers to have served four- or five-year-long combat tours over the past decade. This intensity of deployment to nerve-shreddingly dangerous areas is unprecedented and its effects are becoming, to put it mildly, apparent.

For those people there is, literally, no peace. There is a revolving door between daily risk of death or permanent disability, returning to an often unfamiliar and uncomprehending home, working up to the next deployment and return to the battlefield. Little attention is given to whether or not the soldier is fit for task. As one US veteran put it to me, "If the guy is standing and wants to go, he's going. It makes for less work for everyone."

Most soldiers are remarkably normal, life-affirming young men and women. Yet regular exposure to killing, dying and maiming will change everyone, regardless of training, experience or perceived toughness. The question here is how that change will manifest itself. Some will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder in silence. Some will turn on their families. There are those who become convinced advocates of more considered military intervention. Some may become pacifists; others will sign up as mercenaries. A tiny minority will turn on the nearest defenceless scapegoat, as US marines did at Haditha in Iraq in 2003 or US soldiers did in the "killing for sport" case last year. No one remains unaffected.

Britain's servicemen are no more virtuous than those of other armies, although they are more disciplined and professionally effective than most. These qualities, together with their esprit de corps, exert positive pressures against the kind of thing we have occasionally seen from US units. It helps that we tend not to recruit people into our services as an alternative to jail, as US forces have all too often done. Yet British soldiers, too, are capable of serious war crimes.

It is lethally dangerous for independent journalists or human rights monitors to venture into most of southern Afghanistan. Against a background of so little active scrutiny, rumours circulate of killings of prisoners or the covering up of civilian deaths by US and even British troops. Whether these prove to be exaggerations or simply untrue will eventually become clear.

As the years go on, researchers and journalists will gain access to areas now closed to them and we are likely to hear of more such atrocities by Nato troops.

We don't have any idea what, if anything, motivated the soldier in Panjwai to do what he is said to have done. He must take personal responsibility for his actions. The rest of us must reflect on our own willingness to send young men and women into wars such as this, time after time.

Frank Ledwidge is the author of "Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Yale, £20)

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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